Winter meetings takeaways: Verdugo, E-Rod, Kimbrel, Candelario find new homes
Major League Baseball's winter meetings took place this week in Nashville. After a slow start, things ramped up Wednesday with numerous moves. We'll break down the biggest deals and reflect on what it all means.
Yankees, Red Sox put rivalry aside to help each other
One of Chaim Bloom's first major deals after taking over as Boston Red Sox chief baseball officer in 2020 was trading Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a package headlined by Alex Verdugo. On Tuesday, Bloom's successor, Craig Breslow, shipped Verdugo to the rival New York Yankees for three pitchers - the first big move of his tenure in Boston.
It was assumed Verdugo's time with the Red Sox was running out. The 27-year-old had some electric moments with the team and was a solid, but not spectacular player. He never made an All-Star team during his four years in Boston and finished with a .761 OPS in 493 games. It's fair to say he never fulfilled his potential.
Patience seemingly reached an end last season as Cora benched Verdugo on two occasions. Breslow said Wednesday those disciplinary actions had nothing to do with the decision to deal him, but eliminating that distraction from the clubhouse was likely welcomed. The team never approached Verdugo about an extension and with him entering his final season of team control, now was the time to make a move. Trading Verdugo creates more balance for the Reds Sox in what was a heavily left-handed-hitting outfield, allows more playing time for younger players, and clears his projected $9-million salary. The arms the Red Sox received (Greg Weissert, Richard Fitts, Nicholas Judice) have low ceilings, but the organization's minor-league pitching depth is so thin and had to be addressed. Fitts already moved into the top 10 on Boston's prospect rankings and is now its No. 2-ranked pitching prospect, per MLB Pipeline.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said the plan this winter was to acquire two outfielders. Verdugo's left-handed bat helps accomplish that even if his defensive fit is a bit awkward and made even more imperfect following the Juan Soto acquisition (which we'll break down in a different article). Verdugo played exclusively in right field last season and hasn't played in center field since 2021. He can play center on occasion but shouldn't be the everyday option. Cashman said Thursday that the team is comfortable using Aaron Judge in center field and he'd man the position if today was Opening Day. However, deploying Judge in center full time doesn't seem like the best decision if the club wants to keep him healthy over the entire campaign. The outfield will get even more crowded when Jasson Domínguez returns following Tommy John surgery and if Trent Grisham, also acquired in the Soto trade, starts hitting again. If Giancarlo Stanton isn't performing by midseason it will be tough to justify his place on what's becoming a crowded roster. It's a wonder why the Yankees didn't target a more natural center fielder like free agents Michael A. Taylor or Kevin Kiermaier over trading for Verdugo.
Verdugo's spray chart for 2023
For Verdugo, he gets another fresh start with a historic franchise and gets to shed some of the pressure that stemmed from the Betts trade. He should be motivated to stick it to his old team, and there's also a lot of money on the line this season as he approaches free agency. The Yankees could benefit from his edge, while he will likely benefit a bit from the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Verdugo, however, isn't a pull hitter and was at his best with the Red Sox - and at Fenway Park - when using the opposite field and spraying balls off the Green Monster. New York struck out the sixth-most times in the AL in 2023, so Verdugo will help address that; he struck out in 15.4% of his plate appearances last season, which would be the second-best mark on the Yankees (min. 200 PAs) behind Gleyber Torres. The Yankees didn't give up much, and Verdugo's skill set should help them, even if the outfield pieces don't line up perfectly.
E-Rod is missing piece to D-Backs' rotation
The reigning National League champion Arizona Diamondbacks reportedly added a much-needed arm to the rotation by signing Eduardo Rodriguez to a four-year, $80-million contract. Despite the team's Cinderella run to the World Series in October, the D-Backs always felt one starter short. Rodriguez can slot in behind Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly and ahead of youngster Brandon Pfaadt to give Arizona four very solid arms. It also gives the club protection moving forward, as all four starters will be under control through the next two seasons if Kelly's $7-million team option is exercised in 2025.
Rodriguez, who signed a five-year, $77-million contract with the Detroit Tigers in 2021, opted out this winter and forfeited the remaining $49 million owed to him over the next three seasons. That move proved beneficial as he's more than recouped that money with his new deal. In Arizona, he will be reunited with Mike Hazen and Torey Lovullo from his time with the Red Sox.
The 30-year-old isn't an ace, but he's a very good starter and should benefit from not having to be relied on as heavily in Arizona. He posted a 3.30 ERA and 1.15 WHIP across 152 2/3 innings last season in Detroit. Durability is a slight concern, as he's thrown 200 innings in a campaign just once and not since 2019. He didn't pitch in 2020 after being diagnosed with myocarditis. He only made 17 starts in 2022 because of a rib injury and was then placed on the restricted list for personal reasons. He landed on the IL last season with a finger injury. Still, there were few other arms available with Rodriguez's ceiling at that price point, and he wasn't attached to draft-pick compensation.
The D-Backs took a major step forward in 2023 and have already made two higher-profile moves to supplement the roster by signing Rodriguez and trading for third baseman Eugenio Suárez. Those deals have set next season's 40-man payroll at approximately $133 million. With a couple more moves likely to come, Arizona could come close to surpassing the team-record $154-million payroll it had in 2018, per Cots Baseball.
Kimbrel bridges closer role for O's in 2024
Craig Kimbrel's poor NLCS performance spoiled what was otherwise another really good season for the right-hander, and it's understandable why the Baltimore Orioles were aggressive in handing him a one-year, $13-million deal to serve as the club's closer in 2024.
It was always unlikely that Baltimore would pursue Josh Hader, who's looking to break Edwin Díaz's record five-year, $102-million contract. Kimbrel's short-term deal keeps the closer role open for Félix Bautista when he returns in 2025 following Tommy John surgery and allows Yennier Cano to move back to a setup role in which he found plenty of success last season.
Kimbrel bounced around roles in 2023 with the Philadelphia Phillies but was dominant when serving as the closer; he posted a 2.57 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and 44 strikeouts over 35 innings in save situations. Kimbrel did get into trouble with surrendering home runs last season, as his 1.3 HR/9 was the second-worst mark of his career. The dimensions at Camden Yards should benefit Kimbrel a lot, as the pushed-back wall in left field will keep a lot of those balls in. Of course, that only helps for half the games.
It's a bad year for free-agent relievers, and Baltimore's options were likely heavily limited in trying to find a pitcher with closing experience willing to take a one-year deal. Aroldis Chapman and David Robertson are the two other options, and Kimbrel is the best of the three.
The 35-year-old said signed with the Orioles for the opportunity to close games and compete for a contender as his career winds down. He won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2018, though he didn't secure the final out in the clincher. He became just the eighth pitcher in history to record 400 saves and sits just seven back of John Franco for fifth all time. With Baltimore coming off a 101-win season, Kimbrel should have a shot to continue climbing up the leaderboard.
Reds make surprise move for another infielder
The Cincinnati Reds, loaded with young position players, were probably among the teams least expected to make a play for one of the top available free-agent infielders, but on Wednesday, they swung a deal for Jeimer Candelario. The three-year, $45-million contract is an interesting deal for both sides and will likely set off more moves for Cincinnati.
Candelario appeared at 115 games at third base and 21 at first base last season, so his versatility helps a lot. Spencer Steer can move to the outfield on days Candelario plays third, and there are several other options should Candelario play first. It also opens the door for the Reds to use some of their players in a trade for starting pitching, as they've been linked to Dylan Cease, and Tyler Glasnow, among others.
The Reds were one of MLB's breakout teams in 2023, and it's great to see ownership putting money into the roster - especially after Phil Castellini's obnoxious and tone-deaf comments in 2022 when he asked fans, "Where are you gonna go?" in reaction to the team not spending. So far, the club has spent $77 million this winter after adding Candelario, Nick Martinez, and Emilio Pagán.
Candelario, 30, was the second-best third baseman available on the market behind Matt Chapman. He turned his career year in which he hit .251/.336/.471 with 22 home runs and 39 doubles over 140 games into life-changing money. He was non-tendered by the Tigers after the 2022 campaign and signed a one-year, $5-million contract with the Nationals prior to last season. He entered the offseason with $14 million in career earnings but will make more than that in 2024 alone.
The Reds are banking on last season's breakout as being sustainable. Candelario's Baseball Savant page isn't overly encouraging, as he didn't hit the ball hard. Still, there are more ways to be successful than just crushing the ball, and Candelario is coming off a platform year in which he really spread the ball around the field. This will likely end up being a solid signing for the Reds if there's more to come. But if ownership is dealing with limited financial resources, the move could open itself to criticism, as Candelario's money would have been better allocated to the pitching staff.
There's another argument to be made that Candelario could have been better off waiting for Chapman to sign to see if his market improved, but, clearly, he and his agent believed the fit and money were worth signing for.